Members of Occupy Harvard may have avoided the kind of police violence that crushed the encampment at UC Berkeley on November 9, but Harvard’s student occupiers nonetheless have had to cope with subtler forms of attack from their administration.
The night that tents sprung up in Harvard Yard, Harvard literally locked its gates to the public. “There was a 5 to 10 minute period where we were pushing on the gate, and they just closed it on us,” said Will Whitham, a Harvard sophomore. “It was a charged moment, symbolic because it was Harvard shutting out all these people.” Many who wanted to participate in the Occupy Harvard community were prevented from joining that night’s encampment, including students from other schools, alumni, employees, and unaffiliated residents of Cambridge and Boston.
That night Dean of Students Suzy Nelson came out to speak with the General Assembly. “The dean wanted us to move to a place that was ‘less disruptive,’” said Whitham of Nelson’s comments to the GA. But the students voted to remain in the Yard, where their tents would remain in the public eye. Nelson agreed to attend the next day’s meeting, saying she would bring freshmen to voice their opinion on where the encampment should be. But on November 10, Nelson was a no-show.
Two weeks later, PhD student Jennifer Sheehy Skeffington took part in a Dudley House discussion forum about Occupy Harvard, which Evelynn Hammonds, the Dean of Harvard College, had committed to attending. However, Skeffington said, the dean “pulled out the day of, not citing any reasons.” Members of the panel were told that “she’d been asked to pull out by the administration,” Skeffington continued, “so [the Master of Dudley House] left an empty chair at the panel discussion to symbolize the administration’s failure to turn up.”
The same day, Harvard President Drew Faust sent an email to the Harvard community, further explaining her decision to close the gates, claiming that she was primarily concerned with campus safety. Skeffington questioned Faust’s explanation since the lock-out had not “prevented the physical and verbal abuse that we’ve been receiving from certain drunk students every night. No security guard has ever done anything about that, including swinging branches, throwing eggs, and trying to uproot the tents.”
Faust also used the email to express her support of free speech and cited her own efforts to engage in discussion with the movement. Skeffington, however, paints a different picture, in which the only interaction with the administration was a ten-minute interval of the President’s office hours, open to any student. “The fact that she was gloating about this, as if it was her efforts to reach out, was quite comical,” Skeffington said.
Despite a steady stream of petty harassment from a portion of the student body, there has been a significant show of support for Harvard’s occupiers. The Undergraduate Student Council voted unanimously on a resolution to support “the right of students to peacefully protest without violent response,” and almost one thousand members of the Harvard community signed a petition in support of Occupy Harvard, including, as of November 20, 178 Harvard professors.
Occupy Harvard has attracted national notice and the attention of some prominent figures. For instance, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, a longtime foreign correspondent for The New York Times and weekly columnist for Truthdig, counts himself a supporter. Having been formally invited to give a lecture at Harvard, Hedges opted to spend the night of November 28 in protesters’ tents instead of in the room booked for him at the swanky Harvard Faculty Club. Another ally of Occupy Harvard has been Nobel Peace prize nominee Ahmed Maher, an Egyptian revolutionary and the co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement. Unlike Hedges, Maher was never even allowed in the Yard. Denied entry, he chose to symbolically present his lecture to an audience split in half by the gates.
Maher’s short lecture drew on his experience as a youth leader. He emphasized the importance of unity among young people for the achievement of real democracy and social justice. Hedges, in his talk, spoke on economic issues and pointedly criticized Harvard’s role in the economic collapse. “Harvard exists essentially to feed the plutocracy,” he said, standing just outside the locked gates. “It harbors within its walls some of the most capricious and corrupt figures: Laurence Summers, Robert Rubin, and others, who are responsible not only for the meltdown of wealth within the United States – $17 trillion virtually evaporating, $40 trillion in worldwide wealth … [but] while they were at it, they trashed one third of the Harvard endowment.”
To air these and other concerns, Skeffington joined in publishing an open letter to the Harvard president via the Harvard Crimson, the student-run newspaper. The letter aimed to stimulate discussion among the student body on such issues as the lack of transparency in Harvard’s $32 billion endowment and the absence of clear ethical standards for its investment policies. Since then, the authors of the letter have been contacted by the Harvard administration with a request to schedule a meeting. Members of the Occupy Harvard movement hope that face-to-face dialogue will soon lead to a re-opening of the gates and a new commitment to transparency and economic justice at Harvard.